HURRICANE GROTTO AT KEY WEST’S CATHOLIC CHURCH TURNS 100

A nun built the stone chapel to protect the island from storms

The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea on May 25 celebrated the 100th anniversary of its Our Lady of Lourdes stone grotto that was built to protect Key West from the wrath of hurricanes. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

The scent of sulfur from struck matches fills the small, stone space inside the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto, known locally as “the hurricane grotto” at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea.  And with the season’s first storm on the horizon, all candles will soon flicker inside the stone chapel that was built 100 years to protect the island from the wrath of a hurricane.

Candles flicker inside the stone grotto at the Catholic church. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

The church recently celebrated a Mass outside at the grotto in honor of its 100th anniversary.

The structure was designed by Sister Louis Gabriel and built with natural rock that was found on the church site. Its dedication on May 25, 1922 was meant to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, as well as the 25th anniversary of Sister Gabriel’s entrance into the religious vocation.

“Contributions that came from Sister Gabriel’s many friends in the community made the construction possible,” according to the church website. “Sister Gabriel had survived three major hurricanes since her arrival in Key West 25 years prior on Aug. 25, 1897. Because of the devastation and heartache she had witnessed as a result of these terrible storms, her deep desire to keep Key West and its residents safe from future storms generated her passion to build the grotto to seek protection from our Blessed Mother Mary.

“Tradition tells us that Sister Gabriel is said to have remarked on that dedication day that as long as the grotto stood, ‘Key West would never experience the full brunt of a hurricane.’ And as all residents can attest, there has not been a severe storm on the island since the erection of the grotto in 1922. This grotto is featured in guided tours of Key West and television news crews broadcast from in front of the grotto when a hurricane threatens.

“More importantly, it has become the center of prayer in advance of hurricanes and tropical storms. Masses are celebrated. Candles are lit.”

And, God willing, storms stay away. 

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.